Going Grade-less

Under gentler rating system, schools will no longer be ranked or graded

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Chancellor Fariña speaking at P.S. 503, whose principal Bernadette Fitzgerald will lead one of the Brooklyn field support centers.

The city has revamped the way it rates schools, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday, transforming school report cards into something more like online reviews.

Schools will no longer receive annual progress reports that rank them and give them A-to-F letter grades, which Fariña and many educators have condemned as blunt and unreliable. Instead, beginning this fall, the city will produce separate guides for educators and families about every school that highlight the results of surveys and classroom observations alongside students’ test scores and course grades.

The new evaluations reflect the school system’s sharp swerve under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña away from a philosophy of competition and consequences as the drivers of change, to one where school improvement is seen as the fruit of cooperation and support. In fact, Fariña did not say Wednesday whether low-performing schools would face any repercussions or interventions — a point that critics seized on — only saying that they would be given customized support.

“This is a totally new approach,” Fariña said during a speech at P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

Since 2006, the city has issued schools annual progress reports with overall A-to-F grades and percentile rankings. While the education department has added a greater variety of data to the reports over time, students’ state test scores have until now largely determined the grades that elementary and middle schools receive. (High schools’ grades factor in graduation rates, how quickly students earn credits, and how well students are prepared for college.)

Because low-rated schools could face sanctions and declining enrollment, critics said the grades spurred some principals to manipulate data and teachers to center their classes around test preparation. Meanwhile, because schools were compared to their peers, sometimes schools with scores above the city average still earned low grades on the reports.

“I don’t think that they were an accurate or fair representation in a lot of instances,” said Dionne Grayman, co-founder of the public-school parent advocacy group, NYCpublic.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the letter grades given to schools under the previous administration "misled hundreds of thousands of parents."
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the letter grades given to schools under the previous administration “misled hundreds of thousands of parents.”

More description than assessment, the new guides are meant to give parents a fuller picture of schools and help educators take stock of what’s working and what needs to be fixed without feeling judged, officials said. They repackage many of the same metrics that the previous administration used to measure schools, but they avoid giving them final ratings — which under the Bloomberg administration could lead to sanctions and even closure if schools earned low grades.

Now, the city will create a shorter “quality snapshot” for families and a “quality guide” for staffers or those who want more data. Neither features an overall school rating.

The snapshots include student test scores, graduation rates, and some survey data, as the progress reports did, but add ratings of the quality of teaching and curriculum in schools that are based on formal school observations.

The 16-to-18-page guides describe schools’ student populations, give excerpts from the formal review findings, and provide detailed data about how well students performed on tests and schoolwork, similar to the progress reports. But instead of giving schools letter grades based on student performance, the guides say whether schools are “not meeting,” “approaching,” “meeting,” or “exceeding” a target score that the city will calculate for each school.

Sean Corcoran, an education economics professor at New York University who consulted department officials this year as they redesigned the evaluations, said the new guides feature much of the same information as the older progress reports. But by removing the overall ratings, the new guides will force readers to look more closely at data they may have glanced over before, he added.

“These reports do a good job of making families and schools look a little deeper than just a letter grade,” he said.

But the lack of letter grades also could present a new burden for families sorting through dozens of school guides during the admissions process. School officials acknowledged that on Wednesday, saying the department would have to train parents to read the new guides.

The evaluations put new emphasis on the results of the annual surveys that students, parents, and educators take, as well as the findings of the formal school observations. Fariña said she would improve those tools by making sure they measure certain characteristics of good schools, such as strong leadership and close ties with families. Officials also said they would conduct more school observations this year, though more than a quarter of schools will not be visited.

While the surveys and observations might catch qualities of a school that test scores miss, they are also susceptible to tampering, some educators said. Geraldine Maione, the former principal of William Grady Career & Technical High School, said she knew of schools that gave students and parents food while they took the survey as a way to boost the results. Because the school review visits are announced ahead of time, they often amount to “dog and pony shows,” she added.

A former department official who helped design the original progress reports said that some metrics on the new quality snapshots, such as “How interesting and challenging is the curriculum?” are “impossible to measure consistently.”

“There’s no additional sunlight there,” the official said, “just the replacement of a scale that seems too harsh to some with language that seems mushier to others.”

Before Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 2014, students played songs on the violin, including "When You Wish Upon A Star."
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Before Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 2014, students played songs on the violin, including “When You Wish Upon A Star.”

Fariña also said very little about how the department will use the new evaluations, particularly when they show that schools are struggling.

In the past, schools that earned consecutive low grades were given improvement plans and could eventually face closure. The new administration has made clear that closure will now be used only as a last resort, but Fariña did not describe on Wednesday what sort of interventions the city will take for schools found to be low performing. Officials said in a briefing after her speech that they are still discussing how to use the new evaluations to design supports for schools, but they “anticipate talking more about that in January.”

Groups that supported the previous administration and have been critical of Fariña called her speech a disappointment and said it failed to address head-on the city’s many struggling schools. Even people who praised the new evaluations said it was troubling that the city did not say how it will use the ratings to prop up low-performing schools.

Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College, said the evaluation shift represents an improvement from the previous administration’s “top-down approach to reform.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “it does not outline a real plan for what [this administration] intends to do with failing schools.”

Sarah Darville and Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.